There should be no refuge for the butcher of Belgrade

The greatest danger is that we believe the Balkan problem is now solved. It isn't

Share

The smell caught us on the road outside. Even now, I am surprised at the impact it had on me. I had been around death a lot in the past. The smell of corpses was familiar territory. But this was a smell from another world entirely. I think my shock had a lot to do with the scene of normality in the town itself. Tuzla was bathed in pure autumn sunlight; the town was part of a post-war present, and the smell reeked of bad memories. Inside the mortuary, a group of labourers was busy with hoses and brushes. They hauled muddied plastic sacks from the morgue into the courtyard. As they cleaned away the mud, one of them pointed to the initials stencilled on each of the bodybags: "JNA". Yugoslav National Army.

The smell caught us on the road outside. Even now, I am surprised at the impact it had on me. I had been around death a lot in the past. The smell of corpses was familiar territory. But this was a smell from another world entirely. I think my shock had a lot to do with the scene of normality in the town itself. Tuzla was bathed in pure autumn sunlight; the town was part of a post-war present, and the smell reeked of bad memories. Inside the mortuary, a group of labourers was busy with hoses and brushes. They hauled muddied plastic sacks from the morgue into the courtyard. As they cleaned away the mud, one of them pointed to the initials stencilled on each of the bodybags: "JNA". Yugoslav National Army.

The dead were all Muslims, and their killers were Serbs, more specifically, Serbs who fought in a paramilitary unit alongside units of the regular Yugoslav army. I saw a heavyset figure directing the labourers. He cut away at the plastic bags with a scalpel. Every now and then he paused to turn away and catch his breath. He was the doctor in charge of preparing the bodies for the identification parade. Yes, the identification parade. The following day, relatives of people who had been killed in the area were due to come and inspect the dead. The doctor had two tasks: to make sure that nothing was lost, no little memento that might jog the memory of a relative, and to help the international war crimes investigators to establish the cause of death.

The bodies had been found a week earlier in the hills about 10 miles beyond Tuzla in the direction of Zvornik. I remember the name of the place: Donja Glumina, a huge gash in the earth into which the bodies had been neatly stacked. Back in 1992, at the beginning of the Bosnian war, the Serb paramilitaries and their allies in the JNA had been in no rush burying the dead. They had had experience of massacre and burial in Croatia the previous year and were becoming quite practised.

The images of that identification parade are seared into my memory. There was a heavy mist that morning, and the cold dampened down the smell at first.

From dawn onward, a long queue began to form up on the road. They were mostly women and old men. A group of human-rights workers took down the names and addresses and the names of their missing relatives. And then, one by one, they were led into the yard of the mortuary. The bodies had been laid out in three rows. All were in an advanced stage of decomposition. Clutching handkerchiefs to their faces, the people moved down the lines slowly. Every so often they paused to make a closer inspection of some pile of rags and bones and withered flesh.

There were several hundred bodies. Soon people began shouting. There was a lot of crying. The pain of recognition. A pair of wire-rimmed spectacles that looked like the ones Mustapha wore; an insulin needle like the one Fikrit carried with him everywhere; those Nike trainers, weren't they just like the ones Alija put on the morning he vanished? As the morning wore on and the sun rose, the smell became overpowering. Still the people kept coming. First-aid workers rushed to help those who collapsed from the sheer pain of it all.

Overhead, Nato jets were patrolling, for this was the year before the Kosovo war, when Milosevic was busy inflicting terror on another Balkan people. The West had yet to make a stand against the monster, and in Tuzla nobody believed it ever would. The people at the mortuary were refugees and they had grown old on the empty rhetoric of the politicians of Europe. That was all a long time ago. Arkan was still running his empire of psychopaths (his Tigers had been among the chief tormentors of Zvornik), and Mr Milosevic was still a man the West could do business with.

Then, he still seemed to have the sure touch. His hands were drenched in blood, but we made him the guarantor of regional peace. I wonder, do any of the men who buckled under to Serb terror in those days feel even a twinge of shame this morning? All the prime ministers and foreign ministers who snivelled and vacillated before the confident jackboots of Milosevic and Karadzic and Mladic? They don't. They will doubtless be queuing up to offer their expert analysis of his downfall on television and revising their memoirs for a new paperback edition.

Never mind that Milosevic had unleashed hell on Vukovar and Srebrenica, that he had impoverished the Serbs and ruined his country. Had he not made the fatal miscalculation of going after the Kosovo Albanians, would the West ever have invested its weapons and political muscle in the cause of his destruction? I think not. He would have been allowed to remain as the guarantor of a fantasy peace in the Balkans.

It is being said that the people of Serbia were the authors of this revolution. That is true, up to a point. But for all the poverty they have suffered, and the Nato bombing, and the conscription of their young men into the armed forces, the Serbs of Serbia are not the ones who paid the full price of the Milosevic years. Apart from Nato's blundering air campaign, the wars of the Yugoslav succession were fought in other people's territory. The Bosnians, the Croats and the Kosovars will be cheering this morning.

This is not meant to be a carping response to the end of Milosevic. I am happy to see the back of the monster. This was people power with a difference: it was based on a democratic vote. The new leadership has a mandate that goes beyond the affirmation of the crowd. In the testing days to come, that could be the deciding factor in its ability to succeed. Mr Kostunica gives the appearance of being a decent man, but experience will hopefully have taught us to wait before lauding him as the saviour of Serbian democracy. That is a judgement that can be made only when we see how he acts in power.

Of course, the sanctions must go immediately, and the financial aid long promised must start to flow. The greatest danger is that we believe the Balkan problem is now solved. It isn't. Not in the most remote sense. Bosnia is held together by the presence of IFor troops; Kosovo is a tinderbox; Serbia will take years before it welds itself into a confident democratic state. Hundreds of thousands have been murdered or driven from their homes.

The UN's human-rights representative in the Balkans had suggested that Milosevic be given immunity from prosecution in return for his speedy departure from Yugoslavia. The scenario is no longer relevant, but boy, what a stupid idea. Grant the top man immunity, and what about the rest? Do business with Milosevic one last time. The trials must go on. Just as the Croats have had to come to terms with their war crimes, so must the Serbs. And that means Mr Kostunica must move to end the immunity enjoyed by butchers such as Radko Mladic, who has used Serbia and Montenegro as a safe haven.

The reconstituting of Serbia as a state that is part of Europe, divorced irrevocably from the atavistic past, is contingent on recognising the truth about the madness of the past 10 years. I am not convinced, but there may yet be justice for the people who queued to identify their dead on that morning in Tuzla.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Developer (ASP.NET, F#, SQL, MVC, Bootstrap, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

C# Payment Developer (Swift, FOX, Vigil, .NET, SQL)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Payment Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron at a recent event  

Cameron is under pressure to misrepresent the Tory party as a reflection of the electorate

Matthew Norman
Relatives and friends of al-Hajj family gather in a mosque to pray over the bodies of the eight family members who died during an Israeli air-raid  

Israel’s reaction has been vicious and misdirected

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?